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Fall 2002
Volume 39, No. 1
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www.pomona.edu

PCMOnline Editor: Sarah Dolinar

 

Wiring the Liberal Arts

Computers and the Internet have forever changed what it’s like to be a college student. What nobody seems to have figured out yet is whether or or not that’s a good thing...

On a visit to Pomona’s campus last spring I asked Anthony Nguyen and Larry Cooper, both of Information Technology Services, to show me the school’s connection to the Internet. I wanted to see the actual wire where Pomona meets cyberspace. They were psyched at the request, perhaps recognizing in me a fellow geek. It would be a few minutes, though, because they had to find the right keys.

We walked through ITS, stuffed behind the Mudd Science Library. The computer lab and attached classroom were full of students working on end-of-year projects, typing on flat-screen monitors. Through a door behind the Seaver Lab’s front desk, though, the environment was more corporate—low lights, dark industrial carpeting, a raised floor that echoed boxily as we walked on it. Office doors were decorated with “Dilbert” cartoons, a feature of IT offices mandated in the Starfleet charter. Behind glass, a room full of black and silver servers sorted e-mail and files, light-emitting diodes flashing inscrutably. We kept walking.

We emerged from the back door onto a loading dock. An orange generator the size of a U-Haul hummed nearby—computers need power the way cows need grass. The right keys now acquired, Cooper unlocked a thick door in the wall. On the other side of an antechamber, cool and dark as a pharaoh’s tomb, was a door marked “ITV Inside.” Inside this concrete-walled closet was a tall bank of more boxes with lights, mounted in a metal rack and choked by a multicolored snake’s nest of computer cables—blue, green, yellow. Thick black cables dropped into holes in the floor; truncated copper phone wire disappeared into the ceiling.

Every building on campus connects to the network through fiber optic cables that end in this room. And from one of the boxes in the rack curls an orange wire about the width of a strand of cooked spaghetti. The sliver of glass inside links to the Claremont Intercampus Networking Effort, or CINE. And in one of Harvey Mudd College’s Lego-block buildings, the CINE connects to … well, everywhere, really. That orange cable links Pomona to the Internet, the invisible city in which we all now live. Nguyen reached for the wire and held it gently. “That’s it,” he said.

To no one’s particular surprise, the most innovative advances in the use of technology, including networking, tend to be in the sciences. Here, John Donovan ’02, in the astronomy classroom of the Andrew Science Building, works with Associate Professor of Biology Bryan Penprase (visible on the screen) in Brackett Observatory, using a direct link between the two locations. Using that link, Penprase and his students can control the equipment and obtain observations remotely
from the two 14-inch telescopes in Brackett and the College’s one-meter telescope at Table Mountain.

—Photo by Phil Channing

When I arrived at Pomona 15 years ago some of my dorm-mates brought “word processors,” glorified typewriters, to their rooms in Smiley. I had a PC with 128 kilobytes of RAM, two 5.25-inch floppy disc drives and an amber screen monitor. I don’t remember anybody connecting to anything. By my senior year, many of my friends wasted time on Internet Relay Chat, party lines for the touch-type set. I had an e-mail address, but no one I knew besides my roommate had one, and why would I e-mail him?

Today a high-speed computer network is a utility, like electricity or gas. It’s so pervasive that Pomona students only notice it when it’s not there. The Internet has fundamentally changed higher education. Pedagogy, socializing, research, even the day-to-day business of running a college have all been altered by connectivity. It turns out I was a pioneer, according to Kenneth Green, a visiting scholar at Claremont Graduate University and director of the Campus Computing Project. “You and some of your classmates may have been part of the group that had the computer language Logo in elementary school or junior high, had online experience with CompuServe or Prodigy. Now we have a whole generation of faculty coming to campus who are your counterparts,” Green said. “This is the first generation coming out of assistant professorships and earning tenure for whom technology has been part of their experience.”

In 1985 a UCLA survey asked American freshman whether they had used a computer frequently during their senior year of high school. Only 27.3 percent answered “yes.” Then, in 1989 Tim Berners-Lee, a researcher at a particle physics lab in Switzerland, invented the World Wide Web.

In March of 1993 some kids at the University of Illinois in Champaign, led by an undergraduate computer science major named Mark Andreessen, created a piece of software called Mosaic. It was the first graphical Web browser. Eventually their company—Netscape—developed the first browsers that a normal person could install and use. In 1993 the Web had a few hundred distinct sites. Today there are hundreds of millions. At Pomona over 95 percent of students now have their own computers. And more important than the computers is the wire strung between them.

Jurgen Froehlich’s office is on the top floor of Mason Hall, tucked into a narrow hallway. He’s a professor of German, and I wanted to meet him because he killed the language lab.
That’s not totally accurate. Froehlich was head of the lab, that blue-tinted room of cassette tapes droning in tongues through vinyl headphones. He’s a good liberal arts professor, so he did what they’re trained to do. He deconstructed it. But like some cursed demon from a 1980s horror movie, the beast yet lives—in cyberspace. Froehlich, for one, seems to think this is a good thing.

“Whenever we had evaluations, students always criticized the lab,” he says. “One of the things was, they didn’t like that they had to come to the lab. I realized we could reverse the process. Instead of the students coming to the lab, the lab could come to the students.” He types a location into the Web browser on his old Macintosh G3, explaining that in the mid-1990s, he digitized all the old practice tapes that used to hang on a peg board and installed a server in the language lab. “Then the College got wired,” he says.

The popularity of the music file-sharing service Napster got the virtual lab off the ground. “The students all began to copy music with mp3s,” Froehlich says, referring to Napster’s media format. “I thought, ‘fantastic! If they’re happy with the quality of the music, I’m happy with the quality of voice.’”

He types his name and a password into the fields on his screen, explaining that professors can still track their students’ usage of the lab. A list of six languages comes up, all hotlinked—everything that used to be on tapes is now available for download. Once that was up and running, it was a short jump to adding digitized video, like a German language instruction TV series called “Fokus Deutsche.” There’s digitized art, even a dozen national anthems.

Everything the lab once had on tape now comes over the network—every sentence to repeat, every video to watch (with subtitles and without). It’s all the benefits of the lab—repetition, pronunciation practice and time spent living in the language studied—without the hassle of actually getting there.

Or, depending on a student’s level of commitment, it’s a simulation of the real lab that includes the capability to turn the speaker volume down and go to the Coop. But Froehlich says it’s a more creative, interactive approach to language. “Students, professors can find their own reasons for it. What are the words, et cetera,” he says, raising his voice to be heard over “La Marseilles.” “We have to find more and more ways to get more interesting materials, maybe film clips, because these days students are very visual.”

It’s a refrain I’d hear often: the computers get the messy work out of the way, making the interaction with information deeper, more creative. “In the past, because we had no other way to do it, we focused on grammatical accuracy,” Froehlich says. “Now, with the Net, we can say, how about cultural information?”

This is what Greene of the Campus Computing Project describes as “richness of engagement.”

We walk to the end of the hall where the language lab used to be. It’s been divided into two rooms. One side is a seminar room; the other is a classroom fully tricked-out for multimedia. There’s a TV, CD player, DVD player and VCR. On a high desk at the front of the room is a keyboard and flat-screen monitor, hooked to the network. Next to it is a visualizer, the modern version of an overhead projector, that displays anything from transparencies to three-dimensional objects. A digital projector hangs from the ceiling, pointing at a retractable movie screen.

When Froehlich and I enter, Catherine John ’05, a romance language major, is polishing a class project. She’s looking up at the screen, watching scenes from the movie “Le Fabuleux Destin d’ Amélie Poulain,” framed by the familiar graphics of Microsoft Windows. The steps of Montmartre flash by; beneath them, in another window, is that Ile de la Cité? It’s Paris, anyway, glossily rendered and faintly pixilated. But the movie’s not on video yet, so where’d she get the clips?

“The DIVX [of the movie] is just bootleg from the Internet,” John says. “The only other thing is the Web site. Can I have that open as well?”

She can. When she finishes, I ask what she’s working on. The class deals with France during the German occupation. She has to give a talk, in French. “I went to France this summer and saw this movie. I’m focusing on, like, how it really is characteristic of Paris,” she says. “It’s one of the first French movies that’s not really depressing.” Ironically, it also relies heavily on digitally-altered imagery to depict an idealized city of lights. It’s a computerized presentation about a computerized city—a fabulous destiny indeed.

Okay, so it’s a set-up shot. Jacqueline DuBose ’04 might not normally be found tapping away on her laptop in the middle of Marston Quad. But with the completion of the planned campuswide wireless network over the next couple of years, more students may be seen surfing the Web, sending e-mails or “instant-messaging” in unlikely places. Using a hot new technology called 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, the College will be divided into invisible zones in any of which, given the right hardware, a laptop or personal digital assistant can reach the Internet and sail away...

—Photo by Phil Channing

Into Jacqueline DuBose’s (’04) double in Wig Hall, she and her roommate have managed to cram a couch along with their beds and desks. DuBose’s desk has enough clear space for her laptop, and it’s jacked into a wide, modular port in the wall. Molding, hiding the cable, stretches from the plug up the wall and into the ceiling. “You don’t ever really sign on or sign off,” she says. “A lot of people are always on AIM, AOL Instant Messenger. Unless you want to work. Then you sign off.” DuBose is something of an instant-message addict. In addition to classmates, she messages friends from back home, the Bronx, as well as her mother. “She gets up at, like, 4 a.m. anyway, so it works out that we’re up at the same time.” That’s no doubt true—Pomona’s network sees its heaviest usage between midnight and 4 a.m.

Pomona has a “port-to-pillow” ratio of one to one. That means everyone who lives on campus has a jack into the network. Bring a laptop with the right hardware, and your bedroom has an Ethernet connection fast enough to download full-motion video. From those jacks—which also accommodate cable, should a student (or her parents) spring for it—wires travel into the bowels of every dorm. Nguyen and Cooper showed me one of the dorm wire closets, in the basement of Oldenborg. It was another high rack of routers—those HAL-looking boxes. Three orange fiber pipes headed to a South Campus hub, and hundreds of blue wires, twisted into thick strands, descended from the ceiling. These end at every Borgie’s desk. And every building has a room just like this one.

The network has become an extension of DuBose’s coursework. “My professor of neuroscience has all the PowerPoint slides for the class and the syllabus on line,” she says. “He doesn’t even have a hard copy of the syllabus.” So, if the lectures are on the Web, why go to class? “He’s tricky, because he definitely gives you information that’s not on the slides.”

Her classes also use a system called E-Reserve, readings for classes posted on-line by Honnold Library. Instead of relying on Kinko’s for photocopied readings, professors can now put excerpts on-line. Textbook publishers have, by and large, been eager to take advantage of the Web as a nimble and cheap publishing medium. They can post supplementary materials on-line, and professors can link to newspapers or sites pertaining to what they’re teaching. Fair-use laws allow posting of otherwise copyrighted material for educational use. Some courses also use college-provided software to maintain a virtual space on the Web to post assignments and continue class discussions.
That’s not surprising. Nationwide, 20 to 25 percent of all college courses use some kind of “course management” or “learning management system” on line. Between half to three quarters of all colleges have standards for those products. In other words, today’s classroom extends into virtual space.

Having 24/7 access to the Web makes it a useful late-night research tool. Many professors tell students they’ll answer e-mail until some hour of the night. “If you’re doing a history paper, and it’s like, ‘What was the year of that legislation?’ you just get on Google, FindLaw or something like that,” DuBose says. “But I would hope people aren’t finding valuable theoretical ideas from the Internet.”

The school hopes the same thing. In the old days, “Honnold Library was not the Claremont Public Library, and you knew when you went into Honnold there were different kinds of books. It was a natural form of screening that the bibliographers and faculty did for you,” says Gary Kates, Pomona’s academic dean. But now that every student is at the receiving end of a geyser of information, those filters are off-line. “We have a long way to go with trying to figure out how to structure, in a way that’s both efficient and sophisticated, bibliographic instruction for undergraduates. We just ask our students to use common sense and think critically.” Publication itself used to be a good marker for truth, but that’s not true anymore. What counts as authoritative in something like film studies? A scholarly on-line journal? People magazine? Somebody’s personal Web log? And what happens when a Web site updates the information it contains? Nobody has a good answer. “You have to tell students, ‘You are responsible for the sources you cite for your argument,’” Kates says.

Last spring a faculty group met extensively with ITS representatives to begin developing a comprehensive plan for expanding the use of technology in the curriculum. “Getting these two groups talking to each other is crucial,” says Ken Pflueger, the executive director of Information Technology Services. He came to Pomona a year ago, tasked to be the guy to totally revamp the College’s administrative computers as well as to work with the faculty to figure out how to use the network as a teaching tool. He knows that for skeptical professors, the bottom line is whether or not all this new technology can help students learn.

Economics professor Gary Smith thinks the jury’s still out. “It definitely frees up time for thinking, as opposed to drudgery,” he says. Smith teaches a course in banking that relies on a computer to simulate reality. Program in the right equations, and it’ll crunch data and tell you what would probably happen in real life. Smith’s students team up to manage competing banks, making decisions based on data they get from the model he programmed—unemployment rates, consumer spending and so on. Friday the teams hand in their decisions, and by Monday the computer has spit out the consequences.

So the computer does some of the crunching students used to do and lets them think weighty thoughts. “In statistics and econometrics classes, there used to be a lot of time dedicated to calculations,” Smith says. “The courses today are much more focused on questions like, how do you build a model? How do you get good data? How do you interpret your results?”

Standing on the steps of Carnegie while his class took an exam inside, David Menefee-Libey told me much the same thing. His government classes now have access, via the Web, to U.S. Census data, Florida vote counts and contemporaneous news accounts. Why survey 20 people in your dorm and plot the data when you have access to exit polls from 20,000?

The professors who incorporate the Web into their coursework want it to be a means, not an end. Final projects for Mary Coffey’s intermediate-level Spanish class—focusing on contemporary Spanish culture—are reports that get posted on the Web. They have a text element, a couple of pages in Spanish, as well as pictures, sound and links to related sites. The Web encompasses a vast amount of pop culture, Coffey says, which makes it ideal for teaching about the contemporary world. In addition to the usual readings of literature and El País, her students get weekly training sessions in Web development tools.

But why not just write an essay? Coffey stops scrolling through the most recent contemporary Spain projects on her computer and turns to look at me. “I am a six-foot-tall pale girl from the Midwest. Who would ever guess I would become a professor of Spanish?” she says. “But part of it is that I had the experience of Spanish culture and fell in love with it. It’s something about the culture that this part of the course allows me to share with the students.”

It’s a pretty notion, but one that still hasn’t permeated the campus. “My sense is that there are individual faculty who’ve been doing some really interesting things, but there hasn’t really been a common focus or a sense that this is the direction we want to go, this is the role we want to have technology play in the instructional programs at Pomona,” says Pflueger. “I’ve seen it at a number of institutions, workshops teaching the faculty some program, and the faculty feel like they have to use it. I’m trying to bring the focus back to what the pedagogical issues are.”

Some experts say on-line education may be best suited for training people to do specific jobs. “Three thousand colleges are offering something where, they say they’re preparing you for a job, but then you take English, physics, and you haven’t actually been trained,” says Roger Schank, the chief education officer of Carnegie Mellon University West, a Web-centric version of CMU to open in Silicon Valley in September. “Why don’t we work in concert with companies and actually prepare you for the experience of work?” Schank’s school will rely entirely on computer-generated models and simulations of the business environment to train students to be executives.

But despite Schank’s skepticism, the point of going to Pomona is not to train for a job but to learn to think, to analyze, to be a citizen. The Web messily democratizes access to information, so students can now search out content beyond what their professors or textbooks tell them—the ultimate rebellion. This change is what Pomona wants to embrace. “Navigating the overload of information is what all of us are doing beyond college,” says Kates. “We are actually training students for this. Whatever their occupations are, they’ll need to select information critically.”

The technological infrastructure will expand even further. At Pomona, students will soon be able to register for classes and select dorm rooms via the Web. The new system will work on all five campuses, making cross-registration easier. Department chairs will have access to their budget information. Students will be able to see their financial aid information, grades and courses taken. It’s the kind of e-commerce banks and on-line booksellers have been doing for years.

In a couple of years, Pomona will have a campus-wide wireless network. The hot technology for getting this done is called 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, and it sets up zones around public spaces where, given the right hardware, a laptop or personal digital assistant can access the Internet. The invisible city will become even more invisible, and more pervasive. The wire closets Nguyen and Cooper showed me will become so very early-2000s. Students will surf the Web from Marston Quad, or during lectures.

For some this sounds like heaven. For others, it simply heightens floating anxieties over the possibility of falling into Schank’s trap, of building not a better college but a collegiate simulation of some Dilbert-like cubicle hell.

Ken Wolf, professor of history, believes he’s typical of the many Pomona professors who view high-tech teaching with a mix of interest, skepticism and concern. “For classroom management, it’s great,” he says. “Putting syllabuses on line, being able to accept a paper outside of class, keeping the discussion going between classes—those are all good things.”
In the classroom, however, he doubts that computers always have a role to play—particularly in the small, intimate, seminar-type classes that are Pomona’s specialty. “It’s hard to see how that kind of technology applies in our average Pomona seminar—15 students and a professor sitting around a table and talking about a book. Where do you put the monitor, and what do you do with it?”

Until now, Wolf believes, most of the thinking about how to make teaching and technology mesh has been driven by large institutions concerned with delivering material to huge classes or off-site locations. “If Pomona’s smart, we’ll think hard and be really skeptical and say, ‘What out of all this really helps us do what we do best?’”

Pflueger agrees that it’s not a case of one-size-fits-all. “For instance, distance learning isn’t in our mission here at Pomona, so no one’s even exploring that. What we do with technology here has to grow out of our own educational goals. I think as we continue to talk, we can move past a lot of the remaining skepticism and concern.”

In the end, however, he believes the deciding factor is likely to be the students themselves. “Our new generation of students played computer games before they could talk,” he points out. “They’ve grown up with e-mail and the Web. What are their expectations? What do they respond to? After all, what we do is really about them.”

—Adam Rogers ’92 is a reporter for Newsweek and a frequent contributor to PCM.

Photos by Michael Larsen '89 and Tracy Talbert; Photo illustration by Mark Wood.